Norwegian Encore: Take a Bow-to-Stern Tour of the Cruise Ship
The Norwegian Encore cruise ship has a fitting name. After all, this is a vessel that repeats the layout and most of the onboard thrills of its siblings in Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway Plus class. Like Norwegian’s Escape, Joy, and Bliss, Encore is huge (see stats below) and stuffed with entertainment, bars, dining venues, and activities, including laser tag and an on-deck racetrack for go-karts (something Joy and Bliss have as well).
But despite the similarities, this is the Norwegian Encore, not the Norwegian Rerun. Tweaks and additions can be spotted throughout the ship, particularly when it’s time for dinner and a show. At the invitation of the cruise line, Frommer’s spent a few days taking in what Encore has to offer. Keep scrolling to see the ship’s highlights—and to learn about its biggest drawbacks.
- Passengers: 3,998 (double occupancy)
- Launched: 2019
- Size: 167,800 gross tons, 1,094 feet long, 136 feet wide
- Decks: 20
- Speed: 23.2 knots
- Booking: 866/234-7350; ncl.com
One of Encore’s few firsts is this floating outpost of the Scarpetta chain of upscale Italian restaurants. Onda re-creates many of the hits of its land-based brethren, specializing in handmade pastas—Scarpetta’s spaghetti with tomato and basil is renowned—and modern takes on Italian seafood staples such as yellowtail crudo (pictured) and branzino. The restaurant is located on Deck 8’s Waterfront, meaning that if you somehow manage to secure a reservation (good luck), you can sit outdoors or in the muted, beige-and-brass dining room. Onda is the ship's culinary headliner. See below for info on the other restaurant options.
On a ship with so many flashy distractions, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that a large chunk of Deck 15 has been set aside for relaxing and contemplating the view. Decorated with neutral hues and a big fleet of big armchairs, the lounge gives you a nearly wraparound look at the ocean from windows that reach a height of two stories at the front of the ship, sort of like a giant windshield. There are buffet stations and a bar, but nothing disturbs the sense of quiet refuge. Come here when you need a break from the virtual-reality arcade we're going to tell you about next.
On ships this big, you can rarely, if ever, feel the movement of the ocean. But don’t worry: You can still experience the classic cruising dilemma of motion sickness by spending some time in Encore’s Galaxy Pavilion on Deck 17. This virtual-reality arcade contains a number of rides and games that have to be ridden and played while wearing cumbersome VR headsets. Among the adventures you can simulate: driving a Formula One racecar, skydiving, fleeing dinosaurs, and testing a roller coaster of your own creation. Do your stomach a favor and go easy on the loop-de-loops. Most rides cost $8 per go, or you can buy an hour's pass for $29. If you're hooked, pay $199 to drop in as much as you want during your voyage (prices current for 2020).
The ship has a dozen venues for “specialty” dining. The specialty is a la carte pricing not included in the cost of your cruise. The most tempting spots are located along Deck 8’s Waterfront promenade of bars and restaurants with indoor/outdoor seating. In addition to Onda, the seafood at Ocean Blue and elevated Mexican fare at Los Lobos make the strongest cases for straying from your meal plan. Elsewhere onboard, Q Texas Smokehouse (Deck 6) serves up barbecue with a side of live music, and three different sweets vendors—Dolce Gelato (Deck 8), Coco’s (Deck 6), and The Bake Shop (Deck 8)—sell frozen treats, cupcakes, and macarons for an indulgence after dinner. Or before. Or during.
At specialty restaurants, you'll pay more, either per dish or as a set price inching toward $40, with another 20% added for gratuity. Package deals for multiple visits are usually available early in each cruise.
When passengers get tired of paying surcharges for the most interesting food, there are still some options left, but in fewer locales. Like almost all ships, the Encore has a huge multistation buffet that goes from hamburgers to pasta to shrimp cocktail to curries to ice cream—often piled onto the same plate. That's the indoor Garden Café, which wraps around the front end of Deck 16, a few steps from the main pool. Unfortunately, if you're not quick to make reservations at the other restaurants, you may end up here as a default a little more than you'd like to. The main waiter-service alternative, the Manhattan Room (larger, noisier, less casual), sits low at Deck 7 aft, while the two remaining complimentary upscale rooms, Savor and Taste, are midship and more intimate but not quite distinguished from each other. At those three table-service restaurants, some dishes are available at every meal service, but there's also a changing daily menu. Finally, The Local, abutting a crowded indoor walkway as if you're eating in a mall (pictured), is heavy on fried and comfort foods. You can also order room service, but even that is upcharged now (in 2020, $8 per order).
A comprehensive Encore bar crawl would be a sizeable undertaking—booze flows liberally throughout the ship (you can pay by the drink or buy a beverage package up front). Deck 8 houses several bars and lounges each dedicated to a specific type of alcohol. There’s Maltings Whiskey Bar, Cellars Wine Bar, Sugarcane Mojito Bar (for mostly rum-based tropical cocktails), and the District Brew House (pictured) for more than 50 kinds of bottled beer, with another 22 on draft. Other fun spots to throw back a few include the sociable bar in the central atrium on Deck 6 and, of course, poolside, where the piña colada blenders grind for as long as the sun shines.
Here's an area in which the ship excels. One of the large mainstage shows is a 75-minute reduction of the musical hit Kinky Boots, featuring music by Cyndi Lauper. Maybe it's because Norwegian hired the original director, Jerry Mitchell, but the show's quality compares favorably to the genuine article on Broadway. On other nights, you might see The Choir of Man (pictured), an Irish all-male revue of hit songs that's a lot more spirited and fun than it may sound—it's set in an onstage pub and the crowd on our cruise went crazy for it. But like everything else interesting on board, shows must be booked. Once they embark, passengers have to be quick to snap up ticket reservations for that 965-seat theatre.
Smaller, casual, no-reservation musical acts (and some comics) perform all evening around the ship's various lounges and bars. Notable among these shows is the Beatles cover band in the Cavern Club (pictured), a faux-industrial space that evokes nothing of the intimate grittiness of Liverpool's actual Cavern Club but does have a bar that opens out on the Waterfront promenade. Most of the smaller performances don't require planning or extra funds. Just look at the daily schedule and track them down.
As in New York City’s real estate market, the ultimate luxury on a cruise ship is space. That’s why the suites in Encore’s top-of-the-line, top-of-the-ship Haven area are large to a ludicrous degree, with up to three separate bedrooms, big balconies, wet bars, and bathrooms with tubs. Passengers staying in The Haven also get 24-hour butler service and access to their own sun deck, lounge, and higher-caliber restaurant. This mini gated community is perched on Decks 17–19 at the front of the ship.
Balcony staterooms are situated near the midpoint of the ship’s cabin spectrum, equidistant from the palatial accommodations of the Haven at one end and the dorm-room dimensions of the 99-square-foot studios for solo travelers at the other. Here in the middle you get from 213 to 425 square feet of space along with a seating area between the bed and floor-to-ceiling glass doors leading to a small balcony. Head out here to catch sea breezes and some equilibrium-restoring quiet moments when the nonstop music and stimulation give you sensory overload.
Norwegian was the first major cruiser to embrace single cabins in a big way. Those solo-traveler staterooms are back on the Encore and they're called Studio rooms. They come with a full-size bed (not a single bed), which is great, but they're also all inside cabins with "virtual" windows that project fake outside views. One big advantage of booking one, besides the fact you won't have to double a fare to have a room to yourself, is they grant guests entry to a key-accessed lounge that is much quieter than the clanging, jangling jukebox of a ship raging around them. There are 82 Studios on board—more than on most of the company's ships—and a few actually connect with other Studio rooms so two single people can travel together without having to share a bed.
In our estimation, the pool area is a problem. Yes, it seethes with relentlessly loud music—as do the pools on lots of other lines. But the bigger sin is that it's simply not large enough for everyone (this photo was taken on a day when most passengers were on shore). Norwegian has packed so much on the top deck (laser tag, go-karts, a splash area for little kids, a couple of thrilling water slides that are now passé on cruise ships, and so on) that it forgot to leave room for a good pool.
How could a cruise line allow this to happen? The answer is the key to a nagging reality on the Encore: It constantly pressures you to pay more for upgrades. To find peace or adequate elbow room, you have to shell out for either the private pool in the upper-class Haven area or for access to a space called Vibe Beach Club (Decks 19 and 20). Vibe, an adults-only zone, takes up some of the best real estate for sunbathing, but to access it, you have to pay ($99 a day in 2020, with passes available for your whole cruise). This area sells out early because repeat passengers know how intolerably overcrowded the main pool deck gets on at-sea days. The Encore is a throughly contemporary ship, but it would be wrong to call it all-inclusive. It's more like un-inclusive. Some passengers have uncharitably called it "the Spirit Airlines of the seas."
Meet the biggest gimmick on board. This track for electric go-karts coils a course more than three football fields long into a curvy knot positioned near the back of the top deck. The kart route, which is the longest on any Norwegian ship, juts briefly over the water, although you don't notice that as you're driving. The track also has an observation area so you can snap photos of your loved ones zooming by.
There are safety warnings aplenty, you have to wear a claustrophobic full-head helmet, and reservations are snapped up within hours of embarkation day. (In 2020, those cost $15 for about six laps or $199 for reservations over your whole cruise.) Not all passengers who want to enjoy this much-publicized perk will have the chance. The go-karts supply a bracing and novel sensation if you do snag a booking, but if you don't, do you want to be the one to tell your kids they can't ride? You're more likely to be able to get into the laser-tag course that takes up what would otherwise be prime suntanning deck space at the back of the ship. That costs $10 for 15 minutes or $199 for the whole cruise (2020 prices).
For another relaxing area of the ship (though the relaxation comes at a price), head aft on Deck 16 until you reach the 10,000-square-foot Mandara Spa. In addition to offering massages and a full menu of treatments for hair and skincare, the zen-like space has a large Thermal Suite with inviting loungers facing floor-to-ceiling windows. A “vitality pool,” sauna, snow room, and salt room help your body reap the invigorating effects of heat, cold, and sodium.
Deck 6 is the ship’s answer to a hotel lobby. The desks for guest services and shore excursions are located just off the central staircase, over which a large luminary whatsit looms. The stairs lead up to the casino, shops, bars, and other methods of separating you from your money
The Norwegian Encore is unquestionably stocked with tons of features that make it a modern ship, and there's no shortage of things to see, do, eat, and imbibe. But the Encore is also operated by contemporary rules. And modern travel often means extra fees. To get the most out of this pretty vessel, passengers must be prepared to plan ahead, make lots of advance reservations, and set aside a considerable budget for the flurry of upcharges that will allow you to fully enjoy what it has to offer.